Have you seen the New Era Cap commercials? The ads that say Rivals are Frustrating, Infuriating, Exciting, Unwatchable, Annoying, Thrilling, Exasperating, Maddening, Bitter, Sweet, etc. In my opinion, all these comments are true. Rivals are one of the things that make sports so much fun, and not having a true rival is one of the things I miss most during the Royals soon to end period of mediocrity.
There are several bullet points on the checklist of what makes a team great. The obvious items on the list are talented hitters, fielders, and pitchers. A few of the less obvious are a loyal fan base, a productive farm system, clutch hitting, some might say classic uniforms, and a storied history.
I believe the key determining factor that characterizes all great teams is their rivalries. If your team doesn’t have a clear rival whose fans despise you and would give anything to see your lineup go down in flames – then your team is nothing more than a wannabe. Until the fans of the Indians, Twins, Tigers, and White Sox burn up Twitter with vitriolic expletives about our Royals, or show off Eric Hosmer voodoo dolls to the TV cameras in their stadiums, we haven’t arrived yet.
There is a mistaken notion about the competition between two teams located near one another. I believe geography can create a marketing opportunity to sell more tickets, but in my opinion, it doesn’t automatically create true rivals. A true rival stands between you and your goal, and they are talented enough to potentially prevent you from succeeding regardless of where they might be located.
Once upon a time the Royals had a rivalry, and it was real and passionate and consuming beyond anything I can remember in sports. Alongside the utter hatred the Chiefs and Raiders shared 40 years ago, and possibly the revulsion Cornhuskers felt for the Sooners in times past, the adversarial loathing shared by the Royals and Yankees is one of my favorite sports memories.
If you’re too young to recall how the Royals and the Yankees became bitter rivals, then in all likelihood you probably have difficulty believing that it’s true. How could the lowly Royals and big market Yankees ever develop a mutual distaste for one another? Sit back for a moment and I’ll tell you a tale of how sports legends and history are born.
Waaaaay back in the olden days, in 1976, the Royals won 90 games which was good for the second best record in the league next to the Yankees’ 97 victories. The Royals won the season series with the Yankees 7 games to 5. The Royals and Yankees played each other in the American League Championship Series, going blow for blow, and splitting the first four hard fought games. After four games, the Royals had proved they belonged in the championship series.
In game five of the 1976 ALCS, the score was tied 6-6 going into the bottom of the 9th inning. As you can imagine, it was a nail biter and my blood pressure is going up just thinking about that night. With Mark Littell on the mound for the Royals and 56,000 hysterically screaming arrogant Yankee fans pounding their feat in the iconic house that Ruth built, Chris Chambliss launched a shot into the right center field bleachers abruptly ending the Royals season and their first real championship run. Next to the day the Royals traded Bret Saberhagen, no sports event has been more personally devastating to me.
Then one year later in 1977 the Royals fielded arguably their best team ever and concluded the season with 102 wins to the Yankees 100. The American Leagues’ two best teams (Yes, it’s true – the Royals were one of the American Leagues’ two best teams for several years) met in the ALCS, once again going down to the wire in dreaded Yankee Stadium before the Yankees won again in five games.
Do you have any idea who played each other for the pennant in 1978? Déjà vu, the Yankees and Royals. This time, the Yankees dispatched George Brett and crew after 4 games with a close fought 2-1 victory in the final game.
After an “off year” in 1979 which saw the Royals finish just 3 games out of first place, would you be surprised to learn who met again for the ALCS in 1980? By this time, the Yankees thought they had the Royals number. They were certain the Royals were jinxed and unable to overcome the greatest franchise in the history of baseball. The Royals were just one more hurdle on the Yankees’ road to the World Series again, right? Wrong.
Let’s skip the details and get right to the good stuff. The Royals won game one, and game two, and all they needed to sweep the hated Yankees was one more tiny little victory in the big white house in the Bronx. In the 7th inning of game three, George Brett faced Goose Gossage, one of the most feared relief pitchers in the history of the game. With the Royals losing 2-1 and Willie Wilson and U.L. Washington on base, Brett saw just one pitch from Gossage. That was all he needed to crush a 3-run homer and send the Royals to their first World Series.
The Yankees and their fans were left gasping for breath after this game. You could have heard a pin drop throughout New York. How could that unsung team from the Midwest have spanked the Yankees in their own house? Yankee fans believe they have a birthright to go to the World Series every year. In 1980, after meeting in the ALCS in four out of five consecutive years, our Royals brought them back down to earth with a thud. They hated us, we hated them, we wanted to beat each other so badly we could taste it – it was one of the most awesome feelings a true sports fan can experience.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s, I hated Thurman Munson. I hated Goose Gossage. I hated Bucky Dent. I hated Ron Guidry. I HATED Reggie Jackson. I hated Catfish Hunter. Well, I hated Catfish until George Brett lit him up for three home runs in one playoff game in 1978 and then I just felt sorry for him.
I’ve always held a special measure of hatred (sports translation: hatred = respect) in my heart for Chris Chambliss. You’ll remember he’s the Yankee who hit the game winning walk off home run against the Royals in the bottom of the 9th of the fifth and deciding game of the 1976 ALCS. To this day my blood boils when I hear his name. On the occasions when I see this event replayed on TV, I want to throw my shoe at the set.
Think of a baseball player you hate right now for something more than taking steroids or for being an egotistical or sexist dirt bag. You can’t think of one, can you? There is no athlete you hate for plunging a knife into the Royals playoff hopes because for years the Royals haven’t had any playoff hopes to destroy. Your team has to be competitive first, then having a real rival comes second.
We need more great moments, like the Pine Tar game, which contribute to a great rivalry. How do you think the Yankee fans felt about George Brett after the Pine Tar game in 1983? They hated him. And they loved him. People flocked to Yankee stadium when he was in town. I know, because I lived in New Jersey for a period of time in the early 90’s and we (Royals fans) would actually turn huge swaths of Yankee Stadium blue on game day – the same thing they do to us at Kauffman stadium now with their ugly pinstripes. Sounds unbelievable doesn’t it – huge numbers of Royals fans in the NYC area? But it’s true. When real rivals are playing, fans come out of the woodwork.
Special note – Yankee fans flock to Kauffman stadium now, but not because the Royals are their rivals. They fill up the seats because their bandwagon fans think we’re patsies and an easy victory for them, and because the Royals haven’t played well enough the past few years to sellout the stadium to their own fans. But times they are a changin’. After we punk them a few times in 2012 and 2013 and send them home with a bloody nose, Yankee fan will stay away from Kauffman in droves. I can’t wait.
Back to my point, are the Twins or Tigers our rivals? They’re our competitors for the Central Division crown, but I wouldn’t call them rivals. You absolutely must play in some meaningful games together before a rivalry can be created. You must knock the other team from contention, ruin their chances at the playoffs, storm out of the dugout when they point out your pine tar indiscretions to the umpire, or do something memorable that burns your image into their hearts and minds and stokes the fire of their passions.
I remember traveling to Florida back in the late 70’s and wearing my Royals cap to the beach. A group of Yankee fans, probably on vacation, started yelling at me and telling me how much the Royals stunk (well, they actually used a more colorful metaphor which I’ve edited out – this is a family blog after all) and strongly suggested what George Brett, Frank White, Bret Saberhagen, and Willie Wilson could all do to themselves. And as you know, to a true sports fan these insults were a sign of respect, an acknowledgement that the Royals were talented and in contention for the same prize as the Yankees. I loved it. I miss this soooo much.
You aren’t a truly great franchise until the fans of other teams hate you. Do you hate the Twins or White Sox? No, I’m certain you don’t, and they don’t hate us either. We don’t have any reason to hate each other, at least not yet.
Over time, after the Royals failed to make the playoffs for several years, the rivalry between the Royals and Yankees faded away. Everybody knows the Yankees rivals now are the BoSox, right? (The Rays may have something to say about that.) If you ask a young Royals fan about the Yankees vs Royals rivalry, they won’t know what you’re talking about. If you ask a young Yankees fan, they’d probably scoff at the notion that the Royals could ever be their rival. But trust me, it’s true, I remember it clearly as if it was yesterday.
Can you picture the fans of the Twins, or Tigers, or Indians, or Red Sox, or the Yankees HATING Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Gordon, or Mike Montgomery? Hating them because as a collective group they created memorable moments and destroyed another team’s playoff hopes on the way to their own championship? I can’t quite picture it yet, but I believe it’s possible, and I sure hope this day comes soon.
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